Monday, 1 June 2009

REVIEW: Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South

The reviews keep coming thick and fast at the moment......I'm finding the slew of great records that have found their way onto my desk greater than I can keep up with, especially when these pesky holidays come along and force one to relax. Pity party for one over here.

Anyway, some other features/articles/incoherent babble will certainly be appearing this week, but I do need to expunge one more record from the "Damn! Write about this stuff, will you??" pile, namely Mr Oberst's most recent effort 'Outer South'.

When I first picked this up, I intended it to fill a plaintive, soul-searching Americana/folk gap that had developed due to my recent obsession with rootsy, heart-wrenching Yank songwriters. At least until the new Magnolia Electric Co. record is unleashed. What I had not expected was the much more upbeat, Southern-tinged melodies that practically leap from the stereo right from the opener Slowly (Oh So Slowly). After quickly overcoming the initial surprise, it became abundantly clear that this was going to be a more than pleasant development.

Said opener is a fair reflection of the feelings evoked throughout 'Outer South'. With its winding, positive guitar lines, underpinned by celebratory, confident organ work, the track exudes a happy approach musically. Lyrically the outlook is less obviously content, reflecting as it does on life's progression and the potential slip into mental difficulties ("Dementia, you better treat me good"), though there remains a chance to focus on living for the moment if you twist the intention in such a direction.

The following track, To All The Lights In The Windows, is where Conor Oberst's wonderfully intricate lyrics begin to work their magic, though. On previous outings I can find the fella's downcast, tremolo-heavy vocal a little too much, but here it lends only character and drive to an already heavy rolling sound. The Biblical imagery comes thick and fast in this song about the failure of a higher power to effectively service our prayers ("Solomon heard a protest from the lower court / fickle and chance is God's retort / He handed down the sentence, it was / death by Trojan horse"). The whole thing serves as a more thoughtful, sobering foil to the opener, whilst still keeping up the energy and drive it created musically.

The album continues to deliver mostly exuberant rock with various lyrical gems, whether in Nikorette's search for real happiness ("I don't wanna wear no dead man's suit / I don't wanna wait until the moon turns blue") or Worldwide's aching, unfulfilled desire to explore ("Got to get me out of here / Got to shut my eyes / Got to get me out of here / I know the world is wide"). Elsewhere the pace is punctuated with more familiar, introspective folk songs like Ten Women and White Shoes, which change the mood a little and provide 'Outer South' with an endearing variety. The wide instrumentation spread across the tracks only adds to this quality.

The album highlight, for these ears at least, is reserved for late in the outing but is delivered hard and fast on Roosevelt Room. A clarion call to anyone finding comfort in elected officials due to the recent positive changes, it serves as a reminder to stay vigilant against corruption, with lyrics virtually spat as Oberst delivers lines like "I hope you haven't got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you've been pissing on are doing double shifts tonight". Amongst the vitriol and swirling guitar/organ interplay, though, an empowering, positive tone continues to be upheld by the music as a whole. Again, this is a key factor in making the album such an invigorating listen.

Closing out with a couple of slower, level-headed numbers, 'Outer South' clocks in at a firm 70 minutes and 16 tracks long. If there's any criticism to be levelled, it's that this does feel slightly elongated once the vigour of Roosevelt Room has worn off. The final songs are still thoroughly enjoyable, yet the length of the album does begin to make itself known and a couple of filler tracks - Air Mattress being a prime, throw away example - could have easily been jettisoned to assist in making the album feel more punchy and succinct.

Despite this minor flaw, the final feeling resulting from multiple listens is that this is a gloriously varied and energetic slice of Americana-flavoured indie rock. The organs already mentioned lend a powerful extra nuance to the sound and root it further South, whilst the ranging vitality of the guitars keeps the record interesting throughout. The same can be said of the varying pace, which affords 'Outer South' tremendous variety from inward-looking folk to outwardly anguished rock. Laid bare over the top of all this instrumentation is the crowning jewel of Mr Oberst's evocative, imaginative lyrics.

Add all these factors together, cook the whole bunch for an hour, and out of the oven pops an immensely enjoyable slice of alt-American Pie. Underneath, though, the filling is piping hot and much more than was expected. Leaving it to cool and returning regularly for another slice is to be recommended and should lead to a place as one of the preferred dishes of 2009. Bon appetit.

Official Site / Myspace

Stream the full album at Merge Records here

Buy it at Insound!

MP3: Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Roosevelt Room (Live)
Version of a song taken from the album 'Outer South' - out now

Now playing: Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine
via FoxyTunes


Zach said...

If you still have the rootsy heart wrenching yank songwriter sure to check out kelly joe phelps. Really amazing acoustic dude...

zidered said...

Thanks for the tip, I'm listening right now. The guitar work is impressively intricate :)